Thank you very much.
I am Melynda Jarratt and I am an historian of the Canadian war brides. I've been doing research, writing, and documenting the Canadian war bride experience for more than 25 years. I'm here today to speak about the Veterans Charter because I believe it is important for you as parliamentarians to understand the similarities between the veterans of the Second World War and the Korean War and the modern-day veterans, for although they may seem very different, they are in fact very similar. These are the veterans of the Afghanistan, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia conflicts.
The pain that the World War II veterans suffered and the lessons that they learned about pensions, services, and the support for physical and mental injuries that they suffered, including undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, are things that I sincerely hope are not lost on this committee as it reviews the Veterans Charter and Bill C-55.
I'm particularly interested in the issue of PTSD because it's something that I have heard a lot about in the course of my research. It's not something I really expected to hear, but it keeps on coming up. Whenever I hear about PTSD, I'm immediately brought back to a war bride who I met a very long time ago—one of the very first war brides I met in my research—who told me about the story of her arrival in Canada in 1946. Her husband had served in England first, and then he was sent over to the Normandy landings, Belgium, Holland, and then into Germany. His service was fraught with unspeakable horrors that no human should have to see or expect to live through, yet he did. He survived and he was shipped back to Canada.
He was given a prescription for his nerves and expected to return to civilian life, to a job and to his family who were soon coming over; the war bride was coming over with her little baby. Within a year he was dead. He killed himself as the pressure was too much for him. He committed suicide, leaving her a widow with a small child and with no skills really. At that time it was traditional that women did not work. There was no social support system. There was no social welfare system here in Canada at that time. She had no family so she returned to Britain. Here was a family devastated by the legacy of war. His pain was over but hers was just beginning.
She's one of many, many women and children who I have met in the course of the last 25 years as I have worked on the issue of Canadian war brides.
Other Canadian veterans of the Second World War, their wives, and their families suffered in silence with undiagnosed PTSD for years. It was not clinically recognized. I know you've heard this before. So what ended up happening is when you had a problem, they'd ship you off to the psychiatrist, say for example at Lancaster Hospital in Saint John, which was for veterans. They gave you a prescription and sent you back home where you immediately went to the Legion or out in the woods with your buddies and spent a lot of time drinking to dull the pain. It was an all too familiar story for many children of Canadian veterans whose alcoholic fathers spent more time at the Legion with their army buddies than they did at home with their families.
Another war bride tells me of the day her husband arrived from overseas in their tiny village in northern New Brunswick in June 1945. She had arrived about a year before him on an earlier draft of war brides in 1944. She landed in this little town with her 18-month-old daughter, and they happily anticipated the return of her husband, who had been awarded a military medal for bravery; he had saved a comrade in Italy. He had gone on after Italy to Holland and through to Germany until the end of the war and came back. He was a wreck. Of course she didn't know that because she was in Canada, so they happily anticipated the day of his return.
Well, on the day of his return in June 1945, they went to the bus stop to wait for him and he never showed up. Two days later he arrived drunk, dishevelled, and abusive. That was basically the rest of her life in Canada. She's still alive now; she is 92 years old. His drinking continued and worsened. He wasn't the same man that she had met in England and fallen in love with.
He lost his job. He had nightmares, kicking his legs at night. They couldn't sleep together anymore. He was always kicking her and hitting her, screaming, fighting with his friends at the Legion, where he'd get drunk and then get kicked out. He finally got a part-time job working in the woods, and he found peace in the woods. That was the place he really loved, but he never had a full-time job. She had to go to work. He never killed himself either, but he put his family through hell. The wounds went down through the family, through the generations, to her daughter and then their grandchildren.
I could go on and on with cases like this from World War II.
Another fellow, a World War II veteran, in an alcoholic rage threatened to kill all his children with a shotgun. He chased them down a rural road outside of Fredericton, taking potshots at them. He physically abused his wife. He pushed her down when she was seven months pregnant. He knocked out her front teeth. He kicked her in the stomach. He caused her to go into premature labour. I met one of the babies who survived that kicking. She cried, and I cried too, because it was a terrible story.
I also heard of wives who hid from their husbands at their friends' homes, their black eyes covered with glasses and makeup. I heard of wives who left with the children, eking out an existence in poverty in New Brunswick, or who left to go back to Britain, Holland, or France, all of the different countries where the war brides came from, because they just could not stand the abuse.
These are memories that die very, very hard. In fact, they don't die; they live on in the minds of the people who were affected by it.
I am here today to tell you that 75 years after the declaration of the Second World War, which we are commemorating with great fanfare, there are thousands of Canadians whose World War II fathers suffered from undiagnosed PTSD and put their families through hell. These children are still suffering from it. This is quantifiable pain with quantifiable suffering. It can be measured. It is not a fairy tale or an excuse for bad behaviour. It is real, and it is caused by the horrors of the Second World War.
This brings me to today's veterans of the Afghanistan, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia conflicts. I live in Fredericton, next door to Canada's largest military training base in Gagetown. Soldiers have been part of the life of Fredericton for nearly 200 years, and I dare say more than 200 years. I see soldiers in uniform in the city all the time, but it's the ones I don't see who I worry about, the ones who have disappeared into poverty, who have turned to drugs and alcohol, and who have, worse, killed themselves, leaving a crushing void behind.
There have been several suicides recently of New Brunswick soldiers. Every time I hear about another soldier who has killed themselves, I think of the war brides. I wonder what they think when they read these articles in the newspaper or listen to the television and hear about these suicide stories. I wonder how these women managed with so much suffering in their lives for 30, 40, 50, 60 years. Granted, it was a different time, with a different way of thinking. There were the traditional values and attitudes towards marriage: you made your bed, you had to lie in it; divorce was unacceptable; and marriage was forever, the phrase I often heard.
Today's wives are different. They have a modern way of thinking about relationships. Divorce is not so unthinkable today. They have the Internet, which allows them to explore the resources they have available. There's a social safety net for them. There are also social support services, transition houses where they can go to for their safety, which the war brides of World War II did not have. Our society no longer turns a blind eye to that kind of abuse, shushing it up like they used to.
Most importantly, with all the suicides there has been a greater focus on the causes of PTSD. Canadians have a greater understanding of the issues. Talk to anybody on the streets—anybody—and you will hear a lot of sympathy for today's veterans. Canadians have connected the dots between modern soldiers' service in conflict zones and the combat injuries such as PTSD. It may be too late for those veterans of World War II and the Korean War, but it is not too late for today's veterans. They need our support, and so do their wives and their children.
Canadian soldiers of the Second World War didn't have everything they needed, especially when it came to undiagnosed PTSD, but they had one thing they could count on and that was a pension. One 91-year-old war bride whose late husband served overseas for nearly six years, from December 1939—so that meant he was with the first troops who landed on December 17, 1939—to June 1945, two of those years as a prisoner of war in Germany, and who suffered undiagnosed PTSD their entire married life, told me the other day that she didn't really have anything to complain about in terms of money, and she felt that she was well taken care of. She did have this to say, and, let me tell you, the wisdom of these old ladies just never fails to amaze me. She said a widow is only as good as her husband's pension, which is precisely the problem.
She has his pension. It is guaranteed.
She has the VIP, of course, and help with assisted devices such as walkers or chairs, and even an adapted potato peeler if she needs it, because many years ago, she applied for and received assistance as a British veteran, when this was offered to Canadian war brides and apparently to males as well who were British veterans. You could get the same types of services that Canadian veterans were getting, not a pension per se but VIP services. So she gets those things. Meanwhile, she has a friend down the street who's also a war bride, who also served in World War II in Kenley. She's a 92-year-old war bride. She's a veteran of the British WAAFs. She survived the bombing of the Kenley air force base in Britain in 1941, during the Battle of Britain. She did not apply for those services before they cut them off, and consequently she does not get them.
These two women live in the same area. One gets perks and the other doesn't. That's not fair, if you ask me. I am sure there are hundreds of other people just like them. It's an example to me of the inequality that is rife across the system because of arbitrary deadlines and decisions that are made in offices by faceless bureaucrats and politicians who have no idea how their actions affect the quality of people's lives. As was the case with the Veterans Charter, decisions affecting the quality of people's lives have been made. I agree with the testimony that has been given here as recently as last week by Canadian veterans advocate Michael Blais, who said that Canadian soldiers, their wives, and their children should have a choice as to whether they want a lump sum payment or a pension.
These war brides,who are 91, 89, 92, or 93 years old, most of them having outlived their husbands, are living proof that these benefits they receive, uneven as they may be, give them a quality of life that others do not have. They can live independently in their homes. They can get a little bit of help with their housekeeping or snow shovelling or lawn mowing. It's the kind of assistance that improves the quality of their lives. That new generation we're talking about, the modern-day veterans, are young and they have their life ahead of them, and I suppose that's what worries the government. It's thinking, “Oh, my God. Look, we have another 75 years ahead of us with these people.”
My war bride friend and her husband, who was captured in Sicily and who served two years in a prisoner of war camp, were also young 75 years ago. They had a life ahead of them. They were promised a sacred trust. It is an obligation. What is so different between a human being who gave their youth and their life for their country 75 years ago and the young men and women who are coming up through the Canadian military today? I see no difference whatsoever. The sacred trust cannot be broken. If it is broken, then all the stickers and the buttons and the flag-waving and the mantra about save our troops is meaningless pablum.
If you disagree with supporting our troops, then somehow you are unpatriotic, and you in fact may even be considered treasonous. However, if you talk to some of these people today who have been speaking before you about the treatment they've been receiving, they do feel they have been abandoned. They do not feel that the government supports our troops. So it shouldn't come as any surprise that the Department of Veterans Affairs hasn't always done what was right, and they should be admonished for it.
I recall a story told to me by the daughter of a Japanese prisoner of war who, after having survived the torture, the barbarity, and the malnutrition of four years as a prisoner of war came back to Canada to be reunited with his war bride. The only job he could get—because he had no education and he was just a private when he was captured in Hong Kong—was as an orderly in a mental hospital in Saint John, New Brunswick. That was a tough job for a prisoner of war coming back from four years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He was on his feet a lot in the hospital, and he had trouble walking.
That suffering was the result of his torturers taking glee in beating him on the soles of his feet. When he applied for orthotic inserts, he was told that it was not connected to his war service. He was furious. He went into a ballistic rage at the DVA office in Saint John. He could not believe that they would deny him this measly assistance.
He never got his orthotics. It changed him, his daughter told me. He lost faith.
The family suffered because of his father's service. It's an insult that rings loud and clear all the way through to the third generation of that man's family. Talk about Veterans Affairs and that's the story you're going to hear about 75 years after the beginning of the Second World War, about how badly he was treated. They don't have fond memories of their father's treatment by the DVA. When his daughter tells that story I cry, because she cries. It's a terrible thing to hear.
I don't want to cry anymore with veterans' wives and children. I beg of you to do the right thing for veterans and widows and give them a choice as to whether they want the lump sum payment or a pension. It is the right thing to do, and it will restore Canadians' faith in the sacred trust between veterans and government. It is, as Senator Dallaire said, “a philosophical framework”, a set of values that will guide how we deal with veterans over the next 75 years.
Thank you very much.